North Omaha Residents Win Major Clean Air and Climate Victory

Omaha beyond coal

In North Omaha, Nebraska, local residents just won a powerful, inspiring victory to move their utility beyond coal. After years of amazing community activism from local parents, business owners, residents, citizen groups, and community leaders, last week the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve plans to not only phase out the use of coal at its North Omaha coal-fired power plant, but also to ramp up energy efficiency.

What's more, thanks to the continued work from concerned citizens, OPPD cited its decision to phase out coal and invest in energy efficiency as the best path forward for its ratepayers. This is a big victory in the struggle for clean air, a safe climate, and healthy communities.

"OPPD has finally answered our calls to clean up our air," said Vernon Muhammad, a father and resident of North Omaha. "My children and I will breathe easier knowing that cleaner air is coming."

OPPD has made tremendous strides in changing its energy mix in just the last two years, and it was grassroots organizing and increased community involvement that made the public power district actually answer to the public. For almost six decades, the North Omaha coal plant had polluted the neighborhood with soot, smog, mercury and other toxins, damaging public health for generations. North Omaha faces myriad challenges: high crime, food deserts, lack of access to health care, and a long legacy of pollution. It is the birthplace of Malcolm X and has long been the center of Omaha's African-American community.
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Over the course of two years, Sierra Club organizer Graham Jordison and members of several community groups became more and more involved in OPPD meetings. Eventually, people from North Omaha began showing up to OPPD board meetings, held monthly at 10am. What were once sleepy, perfunctory 15-minute affairs quickly became the forum where the community of North Omaha demanded change from board members, calling on them to reduce air and water pollution, address climate disruption, and build a cleaner and more equitable utility.  

"We have a moral obligation to ensure that every person in our community and beyond has the same access to clean air and clean water," said Laurie Gift with community organization Omaha Together One Community (OTOC).

Over the course of those two years, OPPD voted to add 200 megawatts of wind in 2012, and another 400 megawatts in 2013. The community cheered each of these victories as the utility announced that its energy profile was now 33 percent clean - and at no cost to ratepayers! But the 645MW North Omaha coal plant was still pumping out dangerous air pollution.
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The culmination came at a May 15 OPPD meeting, which was packed by members of the League of Women Voters, Black Men United, Malcolm X Foundation, Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light, Omaha Together One Community, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Farmers Union, and the Sierra Club, along with many other community leaders.

"Around 30 people testified about how OPPD's coal pollution impacts them and their families, and that it stands as a towering example of what holds the North Omaha community back," said Holly Bender of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "Many in the room were moved to tears."
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And then last week came the announcement - no more coal for OPPD, and much more energy efficiency! At its June board meeting, OPPD committed to retire the North Omaha plant (three units in 2016, two in 2023), add 300MW of energy efficiency, and update its Nebraska City plant. The board of directors embraced this path forward with enthusiasm calling the plan bold, historic, and good for clean air.

"This decision shows that 'public' still has meaning to Nebraska's public power utilities," said Jordison. "OPPD's decision to stop burning coal and choose clean energy is a smart investment that is responsive to the demands of the public while still safeguarding our economic and energy future. We look forward to collaborating with OPPD to create a responsible timeline for the transition of the plant that focuses on our best opportunities to build a strong clean energy economy here in Omaha."

This is yet another inspiring, ground-breaking example of grassroots community activism. David beats Goliath one more time - the 167th coal plant announced to retire since 2010, taking a big 68,000MW bite out of air pollution and climate disruption. Just look at this achievement by the numbers:

  • 900 megawatts of clean energy added during our campaign
  • 645 megawatts of coal slated for retirement
  • 33 percent clean energy portfolio
  • 49 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions
  • 74 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide
  • 68 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide
  • 85 percent reduction in mercury
  • 0-2 percent cost impact to customers
  • 180 fewer asthma attacks each year

Congratulations, North Omaha!

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign director